Developing HIV Anti-virals

The annual Retroviral Symposium held at Snowbird convened a wide-variety of scientists from many disciplines ... along with troupe of actors, a playwright and a dramaturge.

October 10, 2023

Infectious viral cores in the nuclei of infected cells are largely intact and uncoat near their integration sites just before integration. Illustration: The Animation Lab.

In September of 2023 the Department of Physics and Astronomy hosted the 12th International Retroviral Symposium at Snowbird Utah. The retroviral symposium is held bi-annually and is hosted alternatively in US or Europe. This symposium originally initiated from a group of NIH researchers which had strong collaborations with European scientists beginning in 1990’s.  

Fundamental mechanisms that ensure proper assembly, maturation and uncoating of retroviruses remain unclear. Understanding these mechanisms is critical for development of effective antivirals. While HIV antivirals now exists, the rapid evolution of HIV under antiviral selection requires new targets. The 12th Retroviral Symposium was focused on Assembly, Maturation and Uncoating and highlight fundamental biochemical, virological and biophysical mechanisms involved in these processes.

In a novel turn, this year’s symposium also featured a staged reading of an original play, “Emergence” by playwright Gretchen A. Case, professor at the U’s Department of Theatre and Associate Professor in the Division of Medical Ethics and Humanities at the U’s School of Medicine. Set “in the future, but not so far that it is unrecognizable,” the one-act has four characters: three scientists and an “AI,” as in artificial intelligence. The cast includes “Liv” who is saving her reproductive eggs in jars in a futuristic world where retroviral therapy in human reproduction is the norm. (Retroviruses, it turns out, are critical to the formation of the placenta.) The script is based on the book Discovering Retroviruses by Anna Marie Skalka, professor emerita at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Skalka attended the symposium in a post-play discussion. 



Taking the leap

Also on-hand during the post-play discussion was Sydney Cheek-O’Donnell, chair of the U’s theater department, a long-time collaborator with symposium organizer and U professor of physics Saveez  Saffarian. Cheek-O’Donnell said that the project is an on-going attempt to understand and develop a way to work across multiple disciplines between science and arts /  humanities “so that others can take the leap… . Stories,” she says, “are one of the best ways to teach people complicated new ideas.” The Play was partially supported by a 1U4U award to Professors Case, Cheek-O’Donnell and Saffarian.


By David Pace

You can watch a video of the staged reading of “Emergence” below.